Monday, August 31, 2009

The extraordinary in the ordinary...

Two of my favorite books are by Joan Chittister: Wisdom Distilled from the Daily and The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. For some reason I am being drawn back to the later as a grounding in daily prayer. For years I used this as a jumping off point for meditation - and then for about 12 years did not - only to find over the past few weeks my heart being drawn back to it again. Hmmmm...

The reading for today includes this little gem:

Where shall I look for Enlightenment asked the seeker? Here said the Holy One. When will it happen? It is happening right now. Then why don't I experience it? Because you do not look... What should I look for? Nothing... just look. At what? Anything your eyes alight upon. Must I look in a special kind of way? No, the ordinary way will do. But don't I always look the ordinary way? No... you don't. Why ever not? Because to look you must be here - and you are mostly somewhere else.

I guess I am ready for a more focused and disciplined type of prayer: reflections on being here now, chanting the psalms, quiet meditation. For a long, long time this seemed sterile... but not so anymore. Hmmm....

Tomorrow I leave for Maryland to visit my father who was recently hospitalized. I really don't want to be away from my wife for a week. I really don't want to spend all that time driving. Indeed, I don't want to do anything but... so many things are really not about me, yes? So off I go - on a pilgrimage of sorts - to see what is right before my eyes. On the trip back I will stop off in NYC to visit my daughter and share a glass of wine and some conversation. And I will have a chance to see my three sisters while at my dad's - all blessings.

It feels like this old song by Blind Faith: indeed, somebody must change and I think it is me...


Create in me a clean heart, o God and renew a right spirit within me. Have mercy on me, Lord, according to your steadfast love... and blot out all my offenses. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin... do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me. (Psalm 51)
photo credit: dianne de mott

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Late summer vacation thoughts and poems...

I am heading BACK out for a week of late summer vacation starting tomorrow - and I LOVE this season. It is already starting to grow cooler in the Berkshires - it hasn't been much of a summer given all the rain - and as it comes there is a clear shift in sunlight upon us.

Poet Donald Hall speaks of the "growing darkness" that matures into New England winters. Some people hate and fear it while others cherish the way the darkness envelopes the soul in a deep, quiet meditation. After 10 years in the desert Southwest, I tend to grow weary of the final dark days of winter but really enjoy the early descent. So while it is coming, I will be out in the late summer sun to play... poet Mary Oliver puts it like this:

The mockingbird
opens his throat
among the thorns
for his own reasons

but doesn't mind
if we pause
to listen
and learn something

for ourselves;
he doesn't sop,
he nods
his gray head

with the frightfully bright eyes,
he flirts
his supple tail.
he says:

listen, if you would listen.
There's no end
to good talk,
to passion songs,

to the melodies
that say
this branch,
this tree is mine,

to the wholesome
happiness
of being alive
on a patch

of this green earth
in the deep
pleasures of summer.
What a bird!

Your clocks, he says plainly,
which are always ticking,
do not have to be listened to.
The spirit of his every word.

This will mostly be an "alone" vacation week as my honey has to be at work. I hope to travel South to see my father. He is the same age as the late Senator Kennedy. For a host of reasons I am painfully aware that every day is precious and another season cannot be taken for granted; so I will take a road trip to Maryland by myself and use it as a time of quiet reflection and solitude. Wendell Berry's poem comes to mind...

The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world.
We, who were young and loved each other
ignorantly, now come to know
each other in love, married
by what we have done, as much
as by what we intend. Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening. How sweet
to know you by the signs of this world.

These past two weeks back at church - preparing for a new season of ministry and mission, study and service in the Spirit of Christ - have been full: there is a new staff musician to hire, new worship and adult forums to set into place, new small groups to organize, a new website to launch, a mission trip to plan as well as a renewed evangelism team to recruit and train.

One of the challenges of being a part of a small, renewal community involves consensus: it takes a lot of work - and even more time - to bring 70+ people to common ground. In a worship community of about 100, however, if you don't have that consensus then trust can evaporate quicker than spit on a Tucson highway. No, in a smaller community, finding common ground is essential if real change is to happen. My prayer for this time away, then, has something to do with learning again how to wait and be nourished in the waiting. One helper is Robert Frost...

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from the sweet things,
The flow of - was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
the petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love
The sweet of bitter bark
and burning close.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I love for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

So off I go to the road - to the South - to my father's - alone (armed only with a few books and my IPOD.) More as it unfolds like the songs suggests...


NOTE: just after getting plans in place to head out to see my dad I was notified by my sister that he has been hospitalized. He fell and dislocated his shoulder and had an allergic reaction to pain meds - and is now on a ventilator. More as it unfolds...
photo credits: dianne de mott @ http://picasaweb.google.com/DKdeMott

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shower the people...

This summer began with the tragic death of Michael Jackson - a broken and brilliant wounded genius - and it comes to a close with the death of another giant: Senator Edward Kennedy. Oh my Lord... Teddy was a man searching for redemption and bringing healing in the wake of the tragedies he created. And think of the healing he brought from the People with Disabilities Act and Meals on Wheels to health care for the poorest children, Civil Rights legislation and a haven for refugees and souls aching for comfort.

I watched ALL of the tributes last night - and wept through his funeral mass, too - remembering both his brothers, John and Bobby, while celebrating his own legacy. President Obama was spot on - Yo Yo Ma wept while playing Bach - and the whole nation paused to give thanks and pay respect to the "Lion of the Senate."


It is a unique privilege to be in Massachusetts during this farewell - a place beloved by the Senator and truly replicated by the people of the Commonwealth - when Kennedy was first diagnosed with brain cancer EVERY local town and municipality had a place for citizens and children to come and write their concern and prayers.

Maybe that's why all weekend I've been singing James Taylor's "Shower the People." It may find a way into worship tomorrow, too. For a long time - when I was younger and thought I was more hip - I though this was kinda cheesy and sappy. It may still be that but... my heart LOVES this song now because the wisdom is so true: shower the people you love with love and show them the way you feel. Life is too damn short and unpredictable to do anything less.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Alas...

Out of nowhere the skies opened and the rain came down... and after nearly two hours of down pour we called it quits: JT will have to go on tonight without us. Our friends from church decided to meet back for food and wine, but Di is beat and fighting a cold so we headed home. This, too, is all good. The poet, Mary Oliver, writes:

I want to be
in partnership
with the universe

like the tiger lily
poking up
its gorgeous head

among the so-called
useless weeds
in the uncultivated fields

that still abide.
But it's okay
if, after all,

I'm not a lily,
but only grass
in a clutch of curly grass

waving in the wind,
staring sunward: one of those
sweet, abrasive blades.


We are well, alive and filled with love - so I am grateful - even if we miss the great Berkshire hero. All day long I've been singing this... and it is still so true.

photo credit: marguerite @stitchesofviolet.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_arch...

Friday sabbath reflections...

Like thousands of other Berkshire souls, we will be heading out to the James Taylor weekend at Tanglewood later tonight. It seems that JT is returning all the profit from these four concerts back to Tanglewood so that the institution remains strong in hard economic times - and - its mission of reaching younger musicians is strengthened.

Last year we had the privilege of being at the show for JT's 60th birthday - video greetings from Paul McCartney plus the arrival of Carole King and Yoyo Ma as special guests - it was sweet. I was also blessed to be sharing the show with the daughter of one of my mentor's in ministry who had just died that weekend. It was a tender, emotion-filled and energizing concert that I will treasure for many years. "Is a song the sigh of the weary...?"


Hard to believe that another year has come and gone. Last night I met with a few key lay leaders of the church to review, pray, assess and plan for the upcoming year: they were loving, insightful, clear-headed and helpful to me as - together - we strive to renew this congregation in both spirit and numbers. I am grateful to have colleagues in ministry like these dedicated folk who live busy and productive lives AND still find time to do ministry with me.

What started out as a simple dinner with conversation turned into four hours of listening and learning and loving one another in Christ's spirit. I left humbled and happy. I think of the psalmist: "how good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell in unity." The poet, Mary Oliver, shares this insight:

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two,
housed as they are in the same body.

Another Oliver poem speaks to me of the potential of our little congregation - and all small churches - that work hard at being a community of faith where all have a place at the table, all are loved and encouraged and sometimes rebuked and all share something of God's grace with the world by how they live.

As we spoke - and ate great food and sipped good wine - we talked about how the words and the music and the mission that we are about brings a measure of healing to us all. The poem is: If You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart to Bear It.

The comforts
of language
are true
and deep;

in a cemetary,
in the South,
so many stones
and so many
so small.
Sometimes
three or four
in a row.

In this instance:
Eliza May,
Oceola,
Joseph.

Can you imagine
the condition
of the heart
of a mother
or a father
watching these planting?
I cannot.
But I try.

"God taketh
his young lambs home"
is carved there.
A few words

like water
on a stone.
Cool and beautiful
like water on a stone.

Lord, may my words help us bear the burdens of life as well as encourage us towards our best selves; trusting always in your grace. Onward now into Sabbath time - and James Taylor - and loving people who have shared grace and courage with me and my loved ones in pursuit of a community of faith.


credits: JT @ neworldencyclopedia.org ; henri matisse, dinnertable @www.chess-theory.com/encprd03015_chess_practi... @cemetary @flickr.com/photos/15376845@N00/3083532648

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Two farewells...

Two deaths of beloved people in 24 hours: Senator Edward Kennedy and Ellie Greenwich. Kennedy was a man who lived into his faith as he matured, but did so quietly and carefully. He accomplished a great deal in his 77 years and may be one of those souls who redeemed the sins of his youth by renewing his work for justice and compassion. He was a flawed leader, to be sure, but he was also humbled by his failures and learned from them, too.

I will always remember vividly listening to his eulogy for his brother Bobby. Those were grim and dark days - just months early MLK had been gunned down, too - and the war in Vietnam raged on.


Perhaps his finest moment in recent years is when he broke with the Clintons and endorsed Barrack Obama for president of the United States. Standing with his slain brother's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, he clearly showed us that the mantle of trust and hope was being passed from one generation to another. It was a brilliant and important public commitment. He will be dearly missed not only by the state of Massachusetts and those in the United States, but also by freedom and justice loving people throughout the world. I give thanks to God that Obama will deliver the eulogy...

And then there is Ellie Greenwich - not nearly as well known and certainly not nearly as publicly compassionate - but man could that girl right great pop and rock'n'roll songs! Think of the girl groups and Phil Spector's wall of sound and Ellie Greenwich was writing the tunes: "Be My Baby," "Chapel of Love," and my favorite: "Da Doo Run Run."


Think of the pop rock singer songwriters like Neil Diamond and Greenwich worked with him "Cherry, Cherry," "Solitary Man" and "Kentucy Woman." And who could forget Manfred Mann's breakthrough hit, "Do Wah Diddy?" She was a pop genius. She was involved in "Hanky Panky," "And Then He Kissed Me" and Ike and Tina Turner's classic, "River Deep, Mountain High" as well as the all-time girl group monster: "Leader of the Pack."

I love the record Laura Nyro did with Patti Labelle and the Bluebells that opened with an a capella version of "Da Doo Run, Run." And a young hot shot rock and roller named Bruce Springsteen was covering her songs while putting together his powerhouse E Street Band, too. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called her one of America's most creative melody makers - she could nail a pop hook in seconds flat - and was an inspiration to other women artists like Carole King.


She was 68 and way too young to leave this realm... may God's blessings be on her, too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cultivinating a heart for God...

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes for Sunday, August 30th 2009. After Sunday's worship, I will be away for another week of vacation - I hope to visit my 78 dad in DC - and see some of the wider family. My blessings to you all as this sweet but wild summer begins to come to a close.

Late Monday afternoon last week, my oldest daughter phoned me from NYC: “Hey, before school starts again – and our move happens and you get all crazy-wild with church stuff in the fall – any chance I might come up to see you guys for dinner and an overnight?” I was delighted – and a few hours later she called back to say: “Hey poppa, what do you think if sister and her hubby joined us for dinner, too?”

• Oh my, my… Those of you who know me well know that I LOVE – yea let me say verily unto you I ADORE – my daughters and cherish the times we spend together. So this surprise – and its amplification – was grace upon grace for this old guy.

• And let me take that you one step deeper: this was particularly sweet because for the last few years I’ve been estranged from one of my children. I’ve hated it – it has helped remind me that I REALLY am NOT in control of most of my life – but it has been hard and I give thanks to God that now it is over.

So, having dinner with the WHOLE clan… man that was Christmas and Easter and my birthday all wrapped together! “Yeah, bring it on, sweetheart” I said with enthusiasm and started to plan the menu in my head. “Should I kill the fatted calf?” I wondered – and then settled for barbecued chicken - which was almost as good.

Now please understand two additional things about this dinner for me: first, just last week, Dianne and I experienced a car accident on the road during a rainstorm in NY State where we literally saw our lives flash before our eyes. When the whole thing settled we found ourselves safe but tossed off the highway onto the side of the road along with another car in the ditch beside us and a tractor trailer jackknifed some 500 yards ahead of us. It may have been the most terrifying moment in my life this side of September 11th 2001 and I give thanks to God that we are both alive.

And, I had a long standing, all day Tuesday meeting to attend in both Worcester – and later Framingham – on the day this new family feast was being proposed that was important. You see, I’ve been working with the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as a part of the worship planning team for the annual meeting for the last six months and we were scheduled to gather that day to look over the hall and finalize some of our planning. This is important work – but given the grand scheme of things – in my family, in my heart and in the world at large – ultimately there was no question: I was going to go to the feast with my lover, Dianne, and the kids come hell or high water. And I did…

And it was a wonderful time of good food, laughter, love, music and lots of healing. I wouldn’t have – and I really couldn’t have – missed it for all the world. But here’s the thing: in addition to missing an important professional meeting, I had to delay working on this message.

In order to be with my girls, I had to put aside my regular routine – my time tested tradition, mind you – and hang loose for a while because Wednesdays are my regular days for study, prayer and writing. I’ve been working on Sunday sermons almost every Wednesday for the last 20 years so this is a deep and satisfying tradition. In fact, my week feels out of balance when I don't settle into the rhythm of study, prayer, reflection on writing: it has become part of my very soul - and it is disorienting when I don't go there.
But this week was different: this week involved a break in my rhythm in order to be at the feast and deepen the healing of my family - and while I loved it all my daughter could see that I was just a little off as the day evolved.

Eventually we had the chance to talk about this week’s scriptures together. We have ALWAYS loved to talk theology and culture since the time she was 7 – and as we did so of nowhere it hit me – right here, in my every day, walking around, ordinary life as a father and husband were exactly the theological concerns and questions being raised in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark. Specifically, today’s readings talk about three things:

• First, how is it that tradition and habit either helps or hinders our quest to cultivate a heart for God? Tradition can be a blessing or a curse – so what’s going on and why?


• Second, is my path towards God balanced or out of whack? A healthy spirituality always involves both the journey inward as well as the journey outward: so is one side or the other claiming greater importance in our experience now – and why?

• And third: how is my path towards God deepening real compassion in my life?
Marcus Borg made the keen observation that before Jesus there was an often an emphasis on holiness – “be ye holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) – but after his earthly ministry the new community began to say, “be ye merciful just as your Father in heaven is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) It is not that this was absent, but it took on a new significance in the new community.

These are the key concerns in this morning’s readings. And as we talked about them over breakfast – and later over tea – all of a sudden my daughter started laughing and laughing. Eventually she said, “Man this whole trip is going to be your sermon, isn’t it?” And for a while I really wasn’t sure what she was talking about – I’m a pretty slow learner – but after I kissed her goodbye and went for a hair cut the fog started to lift, right?

God has an uncanny way of interrupting our best plans to help us go deeper sometimes, don’t you think? Being fully present in love and compassion is what it is all about, beloved, everything else is commentary. And as I thought about my two daughters – and our growing reconciliation – a few things about our readings came into focus:

First, Jesus isn’t suggesting that his way supersedes the way of the Pharisees; this isn’t about Christianity versus Judaism as I’ve always been taught. No, this is a story about how two very different spiritual paths can get out of whack.

• One path involves separating ourselves from the grit and grime of everyday life. These are the Pharisees of the Bible but these are also the monastics of the Catholic tradition as well as the radical Anabaptists or early Pilgrims in the Protestant way: men and women seeking a way into the holy life by fleeing the temptations and activities of ordinary culture.

• At the heart of this spirituality is the journey inward – being separated from the busy world – in order to nourish and strengthen the spiritual soul: It is a time-tested and noble way of cultivating a heart for the Lord.

The other path – which is equally noble but often the minority report – is it’s polar opposite involving a radical engagement with the world:

• Here spiritual maturity is defined by challenging injustice and sharing compassion and radical hospitality. Think of the social justice reformers – Dr. King, Mohandas Gandhi, Sojourner Truth or Mother Teresa – ok?

• At the heart of this spirituality is the journey outward – making the words of faith flesh in the real world – so that there is a growing connection between the will of God in heaven and the kingdom of God on earth. Remember how we put it in the Lord’s Prayer? Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on… where? Earth as it is in heaven?

Two very clear spiritual paths – two historically viable ways to nourish a connection with God – two roads for cultivating a heart for the Lord. Now I hope you will agree with me that every up-side in the spiritual journey also has a clear down-side, as well. Just as every blessing usually has a curse and every light has a shadow, so, too in the quest for a heart for God.

• The path of separation from society often breeds contempt for the world God created – this is the sin of quietude and escapism – as John 3: 16-18 puts it: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… not to condemn the world but to save it. To redeem it. To make it whole and healthy.

• And sometimes those who retreat into an exclusively inward journey come to hate – and fear – the world. They are the souls Mark Twain said were so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.

There is a corresponding wound for those who are excessively outward in the journey, too: they can be a pain in the ass! You’ve met them – maybe you’ve even been one – I know I have! I’m talking about the people who harangue you and guilt trip you for not doing more! The activists who are so driven about social justice that they forget to share compassion and tenderness with those who are nearest and dearest? Someone described this lot as the souls who say I really LOVE the people – I am totally dedicated to the people – it’s just these damned individuals I can’t stand. Are you with me?

I think Jesus was talking to them both: beware of self-righteousness he said. Look out for your blind spot – it will get you every time – no matter what road of holiness you choose. The Pharisees were committed to holiness – they wanted the commitments of the Temple priesthood to be expanded – so they developed a tradition that sought to separate the people from the ordinary things of life that might soil or defile them.

They weren’t mean spirited nor was their tradition wrong or even unhealthy as Christian tradition often suggests. They simply forgot that God’s grace does not come in a one size fits all – that is what Jesus was trying to tell them – not that there way was wrong. Just that it didn’t work for 95% of the Jewish people in first century Palestine.

• You see, most of Christ’s people were peasants who could not afford the luxury of living a spirituality like the Temple priests: their hands were rough and dirty with farming and their lives were on the edge.

So Jesus emphasized the holiness of mercy and compassion rather than a spirituality of separation – and that is the other thing my daughter and I talked about. You see, the best scholars of our generation remind us that this whole dispute was NOT about food or the ritual of washing hands: no, Mark – writing two generations after Jesus – was dealing with a culturally diverse faith community that was searching for a way to welcome everyone to the table of grace.

There were Jewish Christians in this church right alongside Gentile Christians, ok? There were people who followed the ancient tradition of the elders as well as those who had been given an exemption – a pass – by the ministries of both Peter and Paul. And what Mark was doing is what WE have to do, too: sort through the traditions and scriptures that serve life in our generation and let go of those that do not. Like our Hebrew great-grandparents, we, too have to see that God sets before us this day the ways of life and death and asks us to make a choice - for life -l’chayim – for life is the way of the Lord.
So what St. Mark was doing involved a midrash on the words of Jesus – an improvisation on both scripture and tradition – so that a new way of living and a healing spirituality might emerge from what had could be an oppresive spiritual norm. It is, if you will, pointing out the difference between a museum and a vibrant community of faith. One is about preservation while the other is about compassion. Pastor Brian Stoffregen puts it like this:

Once upon a time a young man came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi of compassion and holiness. It was winter time and the rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the student droned on and on about all of his piety and learning.

"You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify my flesh. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my body. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance." As the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, too, and then rolled in the snow as horses sometimes do. “Look, look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse!"

We all have responsibilities in this life, yes?
Families to love, churches to serve, jobs to finish, budgets to balance and all the rest: some of us are called to emphasize the inward journey – to point out that which can and does defile us – while others have been invited to engage and heal the world through acts of justice and compassion.

I sense that Jesus is saying to us all: Remember, sisters and brothers, you can’t do this without one another – and you can’t do without God’s grace – so please do your work gently and with great tenderness? God is calling you to the feast – to the banquet – so let those who have ears to hear: hear.

credits: stock photos of various feasts; be ye merciful @ bigcityspirit.com/CardsEverydaySpirit/index.html; jesus was jewish liberat @
www.allposters.com/-sp/Jesus-Was-A-Jewish-Lib...; inward/outward journey @http://paulmayers.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/07/index.html; katrina @http://heavenawaits.wordpress.com/mid-east-peace-deal-will-curse-america/; community and diversity @ hominygrits.blogspot.com/2009/08/art-news-fir...; the rabbi @www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=218...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wrestling with the text...

Two other ideas are emerging as I wrestle with this week's gospel text from Mark 7:

+ What explicit and implicit rules and "traditions" are alive in our congregation that promote cultivating hearts close to God? And, of course, what traditions - both stated and a part of the congregation's "culture" - push our hearts away from the Lord?

+ What are the healthy insights about being "insiders" and what create divisions that wound and destroy?

I remember my mother's mother - feisty Irish Protestant who married a tender Irish Catholic and raised 9 children - cooked all day in a factory with African American helpers. She loved those individuals like her own family and would bring them food or clothes when times were tough. At the same time, she taught me (and her 40+ other grandchildren) to say the nursery rhyme, "Eenie, meanie, miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe...!"

Once, when my high school band brought in a couple of Black kids from Stamford to sing the blues and soul songs we all loved, she freaked out telling me: God intends us to keep the races apart! There was both love and hate all in the same heart... like Obama said about his own beloved grandmother... and like I suspect is true of us all. Springsteen put it like this:
So I don't want to be facile or sentimental in thinking about these questions: cultivating a heart close to God takes a life time. More tomorrow: now its time to get a feast ready for the daughters coming to our house for dinner!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The tradition of the elders...

As I was getting ready for sleep last night, I kept thinking about the gospel passage of this week's lectionary from Mark. I had just read an internet colleague's reflection on how hard it is to simultaneously appreciate an other's spiritual tradition while also noting that sometimes we don't even know enough to know what we don't know? So, she celebrated the common ground of feasting and telling stories within the wider family... and committed to go deeper.

As a straight, white, middle class guy who has been preaching for 25+ years, I know I have some bad habits to unlearn: I guess I will be unlearning them for the rest of my life. This week, for example, one of the habits that I have learned from my tradition has to do with Jesus overturning the Jewish dietary laws. I KNOW that this is not the whole story - and simplifying it only deepens the misunderstandings between Christians and Jews - but this is what I've been taught since before I was born. Thankfully, I know enough today to question old and bad habits... (although sometimes I forget.)

So I was grateful to read David Ewart's overview of this text at: www.holytextures.com/2009/07/mark-7-1-8-14-15-21-23-year-b-pentecost-august-28-september-3-sermon.html

Not only does Ewart offer perspective re: "the tradition of the elders" - 5% of the elite vs. the path of Moses and the super majority of Judaism at that time - he also offers an image and process re: celebrating the wisdom of tradition while moving past what no longer serves life in our present lives. Ewart writes:

The struggle that every community in every age - including our own - faces is how can the "tradition of the elders," which has given us our identity, now be changed so that what was good in it - the desire live according to the will of God - can actually be expressed in our current circumstances.

The "tradition of our elders" did not drop down, fully formed, from heaven. The tradition of the elders is NOT the will of God. Rather the tradition is our elders' distilled wisdom through generations of trial and error. Because it is distilled wisdom, it is instructive and worthy of careful regard...


But the truly respectful response to the tradition is for each generation to take its place in the dynamic process that leads to the creation of tradition. To take our place in the process of distilling wisdom through trial and error as we too seek to name the "best practices" for loving God (whose love is unchanging) and our neighbours, strangers, enemies, and one another (all of whom are constantly changing).

This is going to be a fun and challenging week as I wrestle with tradition, scripture, prayer and living for this moment in time. I give thanks to colleagues in all faith tradition who help me know something about what I don't really know... I love this little insight from Peter Rollins.


credits: 1) modern jesus @ s3images.com; 2) unknown @ jewishartnetwork.com

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Random thoughts on a Sunday afternoon...

A few random thoughts about ministry, music and the challenge of being being authentic at this moment in time late on a Sunday afternoon...

+ As often happens, today's spoken meditation came out a little different (or a lot different) from my written notes. For one thing, a big difference hit me while playing with St. Paul's words about life as a living sacrifice: the Revised Standard Version of the Bible speaks of presenting ourselves to God as a living sacrifice while Peterson's Message renders it "take your everyday life... and present it to God as an offering." One has to do with literally making something sacred - sacer (sacred) + facere (to make) - as in a sacred fire; while the other is a gift that is shared during worship.

Now I understand - and affirm - the calling to live as a sacred fire to God: not only is dross burned away in this fire a la Pentecost, but warmth and light are shared with those in need. Still at this moment in my life - and maybe at this moment in the life of my faith tradition, too - living as a shared gift has more power and value. Living as a shared gift suggests learning how to give as well as receive - becoming a person of hospitality - and that resonates more deeply with my understanding that I am called to mature in my discipleship throughout my life. In fact, The Message captures the essence of Paul's wisdom like this: Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

What's more, this type of discipleship takes place in community - as a living part of the Body of Christ - rather than in a primarily privatized way. It is an alternative to the piety of the age that one of my daughter's calls the spirituality of "Jesus is my boyfriend!"

+ Another thought floated through my mind as I was sitting in worship this morning: "O Lord, can't we be freed from the trap and burden of our buildings!" We were in a small rustic ski lodge in the State Forest today sharing worship with a sister congregation. It was so open and free when all of a sudden it hit me again: "Damn but the mission and impact on our community we could be making if we weren't so literally indebted to our buildings!" (Someone calls this our "edifice complex.")

Don't get me wrong, buildings matter - we need sacred places as well as centers to organize our mission, study together and feast - but the time has probably already come for more and more of us to join together and share space for mission and ministry. And not necessarily as part of the same congregation (although that could happen, too) but just as people using God's resources wisely.

+ And then... what a treasure of talent can be unlocked by inviting the local artists into our faith communities. I was introduced to an incredible local talent - Linda Worster - who sings with depth and beauty and plays the guitar with style and grace. OMG... if you don't know her work, check her out at: http://www.lindaworster.com/ (I wish I could include one of her tunes here, but go to her site and take a listen: it is sweet!) As she sang this morning, she brought a healing to us all - something like what Mary Oliver talks about in her poem, "Broken, Unbroken."

The lonely
stand in the dark corners
of their hearts.

I have seen them
in cities,
and in y own neighborhood,

nor could I touch them
with the magic
that they crave

to be unbroken.
Then, I myself,
lonely,

said hello to
good fortune.
Someone

came along
and lingered
and little by little

became everything
that makes the difference.
Oh, I wish such good luck

to everyone.
How beautiful it is
to be unbroken.
(Mary Oliver, "Broken, Unbroken," Evidence: Beacon Press, Boston, 2009)

It was a day of blessing upon blessing - and random thoughts that are pregnant with possibilities - and now even a hint of sun in what seems like perpetual rain. Like Luka Bloom sang: I'm a happy man in the world.

(credits: 1) unlisted; 2) from the red pill consortium; 3) from linda worster my space; 4) google public images)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gratitude, shock and awe...

Sometimes all you can do is acknowledge your gratitude amidst the shock and awe of real life. Yesterday - after a full and demanding week back at church - Dianne and I pulled out of town for a family wedding. Like much of the rest of this summer, the weather was shitty: rain, rain and more rain. And humid: OMG! So, we took the truck because it has AC.

We were both tired and the road was slick and the rain was insistent but we were in a good mood because Di's niece was getting married. We were going to a party - after the sadness and tough times the family has been through this spring and summer a celebration was in order - so we were looking forward to the day. And then, without warning or any real reason, our truck was being hurled across the highway and I was unable to stop it.

I guess we were hydroplaning - or hit a patch of slick road - but I had no control over the truck and we were headed for a ditch, a road sign or... a parked police car. Just ahead of us not only had a tractor trailer just jack knifed and rolled over - hence the parked squad car - but another small passenger car had skidded off the road, hit the guard rail and found itself spun around in the ditch.

Time seemed to stop - maybe you know what that is like - and life was in slow motion. There was no control over the truck, life seemed to be passing me by AND I understood that the truck was moving at 50 mph and people were likely to die. I remembering praying, "Lord, I am in your hands." Apparently I said in a terrified voice, "Dianne... DIANNE!" (she told me later it was the most frightening sound she had ever heard.) And then we were off the road - somehow missing the the guard rail, the road signs and the police car - ending up in a small patch off grass about 100 feet off the road.

The car was stopped, we were both alright and everything seemed frozen in place. I turned the car off, looked at Dianne and stepped into the blistering rain. The police officer motioned me to get back in the car so I started it and tried to get up the hill. The mud was too much so we looked at one another again. Out of nowhere the officer was now standing beside my window telling me to wait for the tow truck - which had just arrived for the other car - and he would get us out. Thirty minutes later we were back on the side of the road with no damage to anyone or anything - but totally dazed and confused.

We spoke with the cop a little after that: he was as scared and in shock as we were but all was well. So we shook hands and headed off after paying the young man for the tow truck. Getting off at the next exit, we sat in the truck and then used the facilities to dry off. Only then did the magnitude of what had just happened hit me and I couldn't speak or really even think: we were alive. No one - no one - was hurt - what's more the truck was just fine, too.

I am still in shock and awe at how lucky and blessed we were - and are - and have been. I don't pretend to understand these things but am coming to terms with how much grace there is in my life. And while I can't speak for others once again I have a palpable sense that ALL of this thing we call life and death is a sweet but incomprehensible gift. I won't try to explain the tragedies of life here - some make sense and others seem cruel and all of them hurt - I just know we did not suffer and I am grateful.

Oh yeah... after a cup of tea and some roadside tears, we eventually made it to the wedding, too. It was a privilege to be part of this GREAT feast and celebration. Today we got back on the road early and are back home exhausted, humbled and alive. We give thanks to God.

Oh yeah... concerning our near disaster on the road...

+ I am NOT discounting oil on the road, physics, an unusual amount of rain, wear and tear on the car and all the rest...

+ Nor am I saying that lots of practice and commitment to defensive driving was not a part of the picture either...

+ and I am certainly NOT saying that for some unique reason the God of all creation reached down to spare Dianne and myself but not others...

My spirituality is neither that cruel or superstitious. ALL I am saying is that I am grateful to have not experienced more than the scare of my life and I am grateful to God that Dianne and I have more time on earth to share love and compassion.

Like Bill Coffin once said about the tragic loss of his son to an automobile accident and alcohol: all I know for certain is that God was WITH me (and my son) in that moment - in the fear and the rejoicing and the loss - and I am content to know it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Scripture and our stories...

NOTE: here are my weekly sermon notes for Sunday, August 23, 2009. We're going to be doing worship in the State Forest this week with our neighbor's at South Congregational Church. So, if you are in the area and want to join us, bring a lawn chair and head out to the Pittsfield State Forest: www.mass.info/pittsfield.ma/parks/pittsfield_state_forest.htmZ Because there will be two (2) preachers sharing the message, we thought it would be wise to tell one another our story of ministry through our favorite defining Bible texts. Here's the way mine came out...

When I was beginning a conversation with the search committee at First Church, after they had asked me a number of good and penetrating questions, I asked them: tell me what verse from Scripture you are liking the most right now and how it says something about your life? As you might imagine, there was a collective shudder on the other end of the telephone – and some nervous laughter – before the group began to rise to the occasion.

And I have to tell you that although it took a little bit of time to build up some spiritual steam, we eventually got rolling and I learned a lot about First Church. Because, you see, there are no right or wrong answers to this question – it’s all about naming the source of your spiritual commitment and grounding it within our tradition – and I always discover at least two things whenever I ask it.

+ First, how truly uncomfortable many contemporary Christians are with the Bible. They really are: we’ve been beaten up with it and shamed, made to feel stupid and inadequate; so I’m not surprised when folks don’t jump at the chance to talk about the Bible with me. They have good reasons for being quiet.

+ And yet the second thing I tend to discover is how authentically spiritually literate many of us are, too. Not scholars – nor those who can quote chapter and verse – but spiritually literate people who know something of God’s loving grace and don’t quite know how to talk about it.

And how can you talk about it in everyday language? How can you summarize the blessings, mystery, awe, beauty, pain and all the rest? Poets and musicians, dancers and sculptors have spent their whole lives trying to get it right and they only get close. How does St. Paul put it: now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face?

So we have to try – and keep trying – because there is one more thing we can discover when we pick a Bible passage for our lives: it gives us a frame of reference for understanding what God is doing in our own lives. Let me explain by sharing what I mean from within my own experience, ok? The first selection I read this morning comes from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome – Romans 12 to be exact – and it has been one of my favorite Bible passages for over 35 years. In fact, it is the selection that most clearly describes who I was when I first went into ministry.

Listen to how Paul talks about the Christian life:

I appeal to you sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, to the Lord for this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Eugene Peterson, who has reworked the scriptures into contemporary language that is both poetic and persuasive, renders Romans 12 like this:

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Aren’t those words great? I love them for they speak to me of finding God in my ordinary, everyday walking around life – and that’s something I still trust and affirm. God is here – within and among us – not that God isn’t out there, too, or above and beyond: I love the way one of our United Church of Christ prayers puts it: “Holy God, our loving Creator, close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest star…” Such wonderful words and they still work for me.

And if I am really honest with you, there are other parts of Paul’s poetry that I continue to affirm all these years later. I love that fact that we are reminded that our goal is well-formed spiritual maturity. The old translations speak of perfection – be ye perfect as the Lord your God is perfect – but that is both inadequate and impossible: our calling is not perfection, but spiritual maturity and that is part of what Paul is saying.

He’s also reminding us that we will be changed from the inside out and I can’t tell you how important that is, ok? God will change us from the inside out – so stop worrying and fussing so much! I’ve spent 35 years in the church worrying and fussing and feeling inadequate – maybe you have, too – and here’s why: the opening words of the scripture confused me.

+ Present your bodies as a living sacrifice – for a long, long time I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew what a sacrifice meant in the Old Testament temple: was that what God was asking from me?

+ And I’ve heard a lot of preachers talk about this text saying things like Paul calls us a living sacrifice because we keep crawling off the altar. Kinda creepy, don’t you think?

And here’s the rub: presenting myself to God as a living sacrifice always meant that I deserved to be destroyed – that I could never be good enough for Christ – that no matter how hard I tried I really needed to try harder – and even then that wouldn’t really be good enough. I’ve discovered over the years that a lot of Christians have been cursed with this type of spirituality…

+ It squeezes some into the mold of self-righteousness and others into the mold of self-hatred. It causes a lot of us resent the church and even become Mark Twain’s definition of a Pharisee.

• Do you know it? He said a Pharisee was a good man in the worst sense of the word. Perfect… and I’ve been there, haven’t you?

Trying to live into this spirituality – as much as I love Paul’s words – almost made me crazy: It nearly destroyed my marriage, could have turned my children against me and the church to say nothing of pushing me out of ministry. So after lots of counseling and prayer – and some pretty crazy stuff – I took the advice of those wise old philosophers, Led Zeppelin, and said to Paul: I can’t quit you baby… so I’m gonna put you down for awhile.”


+ Put you down and picked up something of the spirit of Jesus in this other passage – my current favorite for about the last 10 years – that says: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”

• I was tired – I was certainly burned out on religion – and I needed to find a way – from the inside out – to rely on God’s grace not judgment. And I’ve discovered a lot of others want this, too.

So that’s what I’ve been exploring for about 10 years: the unforced rhythms of God’s grace – the natural way of living as a prayer rather than trying to force my life into praying – being awake and aware. Accepting forgiveness immediately rather than fretting about it and understanding that I was made to get it wrong at least as much as I get it right so…. what am I supposed to learn from all my mistakes?

+ Are you with me? It is a very different way of being spiritual – or doing ministry. And I have to tell you: it’s a lot more fun, too.

+ I don’t know if that makes any sense to you… but it is my story with the scriptures and I think we each have to start with our own story, yes?

Let me leave you with this exquisite explication of my new found spirituality by the poet, Mary Oliver, who writes this in her new collection:

The singular and cheerful life of any flower
in anyone’s garden
or any still unowned field –

if there are any –
catches me
by the heart,
by its color,

by its obedience
to the holiest of laws:
be alive
until you are not.

Ragweed,
pale violet bull thistle,
morning glories curling
through the field corn;

and those princes of everything green –
the grasses
of which there are truly
an uncountable company,

each
on its singular stem
striving
to rise and ripen.

What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?

Oh, my dear heart,
My own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,

look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
Look at the grass
.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Farewells and new beginnings...

Ok, this is a total rant... (almost.) I heard on the radio this afternoon that conservative columnist, Robert Novak, died today. He was a man - like Dick Chenny - who deserved the moniker: Prince of Darkness. In fact, he used it as the title of his autobiography. To my sensibilities he was mean spirited, boorish and unwilling to admit that his ideas and often half-baked blathering caused harm to innocent people. (I can already hear someone say, "please, tell us how you really feel!")

Please don't misunderstand: I am not fuming because he was a social conservative. Most social and religious conservatives are principled, dedicated people who value serving others and encouraging the common good. But there are a handful of public bullies - Dick Armey, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Delay, Ann Coulter, Dr. Laura and Glenn Beck to name the obvious - who all learned from the master: Robert Novak. He confused authentic questioning of the government with treason, shouting for civil discourse and venomous attacks for serving the body politic.

For those too young to recall, Novack was the role model for the Saturday Night Live skit - Point/Counter Point - where Dan Akroyd turned to Jane Curtain and rather than argue her point simply said, "Jane, you ignorant slut..." Very funny, too honest and pure Novack. Take a look at: www.hulu.com/watch/2306/saturday-night-live-point-counterpoint-lee-marvin-and-michelle-triola_)

Never forget: he was the hack who did Dick Chenny's public bidding by "outting" the undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame in order to distract and punish those who opposed our scandalous war in Iraq. (Karl Rove and Richard Armitage were the actual "leaks" but Chenny was the source.)

No wonder Jon Stewart awarded him the "Number One Douche bag of Liberty" award: he was a person who hid his questionable ethics behind a loud voice and a cruel persona. You can be tough - look at Tim Russert (rip) or even David Gregory - but Novak was ruthless regardless of the costs. And when James Carville - no slouch to political street fighting - called his bluff on CNN, Novak could only curse him, throw down his microphone and pout off the set.


When Americans lament our lack of public ethics - or even propriety and manners - let us not forget Robert Novak and the deceptive, lying minions he spawned - he has a great deal to acount for and we are all the worse for his life's work. My heart goes out to his family as it is always tough and empty to grieve a loved one. May God's spirit be with you all. And, let's not forget this man's legacy...

Thank God we serve a Lord of grace... On a brighter note, I was back at church day - and it was wonderful to see my friends and staff after a two week vacation - this is a sweet place. It feels like a new beginning as I start my third year as their pastor. I was struck this morning in prayer by this poem of Mary Oliver's:

There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...